Neighbourhood Ties

On the Uighur visa controversy, there's much more to it than meets the eye

The US and Pakistan are also players in the drama that led to India cancelling the visa of Uighur leader Dolkun Isa, whom China considers a terrorist

All is not what it seems with regard to the controversy on India's issuance and withdrawal of visas to World Uyghur Congress leaders Dolkun Isa and Omar Kanat. The visas were initially given despite or because of the antecedents of all the parties concerned.

The World Uyghur Congress describes itself as an international organisation that represents the collective interests of the Uighur people both in East Turkestan (Xinjiang, China) and abroad. The World Uyghur Congress's main objective is to promote the rights of the ethnic group and use peaceful, nonviolent, and democratic means to determine the political future of East Turkestan.

The Congress operates out of Washington. It also has a large presence in Germany. Rebiya Kadeer heads the organisation. A successful businesswoman, Kadeer was at one time one of the five richest people in China. Kadeer was not always at odds with the government, and was once a delegate to China’s parliament, the National People’s Congress. She was also an official People’s Republic of China representative to the Fourth UN World Conference for Women in 1995. Clearly a woman of substance as well as means, she left China in 1996 to fight for the rights of the Uighur people.

Tacit support

The other organisation that was at the centre of recent events was a somewhat lesser-known outfit called Initiatives for China. It describes itself as grassroots movement dedicated to advancing a peaceful transition to democracy in China. It was ostensibly for this purpose that the Initiatives for China organised the InterEthnic InterFaith Leadership Conference in the Indian town of Dharamsala at the end of April to bring together various ethnic and religious groups from China. This conference series is funded by the National Endowment for Democracy, which in turn is funded by the US Congress.

The National Endowment for Democracy aims to support groups abroad “who are working for freedom and human rights, often in obscurity and isolation”. Clearly, it aims to use aspirations for democracy and self-determination to pry open otherwise closed or highly centralised regimes, albeit very selectively. The NED is not concerned about the situation within many US allies such as Saudi Arabia or Israel, but is very concerned about what goes on with rivals such as China or Russia. It has a clear agenda, which is to further US interests. It operates in close coordination with the Central Intelligence Agency, which also reports from time to time to the US Congress.

Role of think tanks

What is interesting is that the InterEthnic InterFaith Leadership Conference was taking place in India. All such conferences need permission from the Indian government. Did the Indian government grant permission? The role of some think tanks which have come into some prominence after the regime change in New Delhi are being spoken about in this connection. especially the Vivekananda International Foundation and the India First Foundation. Both these outfits have associations with several top US based think tanks such as Atlantic Council, Heritage Foundation, German Marshall Fund and the Brookings Institution.

This isn't surprising. Right-wing think tanks the world over usually think alike and act in concert. Under the National Democratic Alliance dispensation, US think tanks like Brookings Institution and Carnegie Foundation have also set up shop in New Delhi to influence, if not make, policy.

A short history

Raking up the Uighur issue is not without reason. Along with Tibet, Xinjiang is a perceived weak link in the post-1949 Chinese empire. Both regions are also across India’s frontier with China. Xinjiang or East Turkestan, the home of the Uighurs, abuts the Ladakh district of Jammu and Kashmir.

Like Tibet, Xinjiang also had a troubled relationship with China. Chinese dominance waxed and waned with the ebbs and tides of imperial power in Beijing. After 1912, when Sun Yat Sen proclaimed a republic, a now enfeebled China for all practical purposes lost all authority in Tibet and Xinjiang. Chinese garrisons were driven out and local leaderships assumed complete authority.

While Tibet was securely under the control of the Buddhist theocracy, Xinjiang came under the sway of several warlords until 1941 when a renegade KMT general- turned-warlord, Sheng Shical, established a Soviet Republic under the close guidance of the Comintern in Moscow. The Russians now moved in and they took over all international relations and trade.

There were consequences in India, because it caused the British to push Ladakh’s border outwards by incorporating Aksai Chin to create a buffer. In 1949, Joseph Stalin handed over Xinjiang to the newly established People’s Republic of China of Mao Zedong. It was in the process of occupying Tibet and Xinjiang that China occupied Aksai Chin.

Pakistan connection

In 1949, the population of Xinjiang comprised almost entirely of various Turkic nationalities, of which the Uighurs were the largest. Han Chinese only accounted for 6%. Thanks to a continuous migration sanctioned and blessed by the authorities in Beijing, that proportion has now gone up to almost 48%. Much of this is centered in Urumqi, Xinjiang’s capital, which is more than 80% Han. The Uighurs are still the majority in the region below the Khotan and Kashgar line that abuts India.

The gas and oil finds in the immediate region have given impetus to the development of the area. Unfortunately, however, the gains have not been equally shared. The Uighurs still continue to be less well-off and deprived. The notion that it is their national resources that are being exploited by the Chinese authorities to mostly benefit the Han migrants is quite pervasive among the Uighurs.

When I last visited Urumqi, shopkeepers in the bustling ancient marketplace were quite open and vocal about their sentiments. Many Uighurs speak a bit of Urdu owing to the burgeoning relationship with Pakistan after the construction of the Karakoram highway that reaches Gilgit–Baltistan. Urumqi has several restaurants that advertise their Pakistani cuisine.

There is also another unintended but nevertheless burgeoning Pakistani connection. Well-known Pakistani institutions such as the Lashkar-e-Taiba and the Jamaat-ud-Dawa have trained no less than 4,000 Uighurs to wage a jihad in their homeland. Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence connection with these outfits is well known to the Chinese. Ostensibly keeping the lid on them helps the Pakistanis keep the Chinese obliged to them.

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